In Search of Techne

Ch 3.2: Chemistry and Process Engineering

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to

July 29 1970

An article by J P Roche, of the Crawford Municipal Technical Institute, in the Cork Evening Echo is worth noting. The theme was the technology of instruments....such as are in use for the control of industrial processes. The purpose was to draw attention to the existence of a two-year full-time course at Crawford leading to the final certificate of the City and Guilds London Institute......

The course covers physics, mathematics, general studies, instrument technicianship, workshop practice, drawing, electronics, automatic control, physical measurements and computer control systems. This looks excellent and should turn out some useful people.

It is however my experience that the process control field is far from routine; you cannot dispense with basic thinking. People with science degrees might tend to look at this field and say 'fine for City and Guilds people but not interesting enough for me'. They would be wrong to think in this way; the instrumentation field is full of pitfalls where a basic scientific understanding is essential.

For example, most process instrumentation in use has evolved from the practice of the petroleum industry, where one deals with relatively clean, homogeneous fluids. I have seen engineers with this background called in to develop an instrument to measure specific gravity of a liquid to one part in 10,000. They built a beautiful instrument, which however never performed because the liquid was sticky and messy and had solids floating in it. Even if they had succeeded, the system in which it was supposed to work was unsound, in that control could only be excercised in one direction (dilution) and the variations in specific gravity at the input were such that you had to have a high average dilution rate.

Since the liquid was being extracted by washing the soluble components out from a solid phase, anyone with a feeling for thermodynamics and the cost of entropy reduction would immediately suggest using the dilution water to extract more soluble matter, batching with a rough integrating measure of specific gravity so as to excercise first-approximation control, and then diluting afterwards as a fine-adjustment, using only a minimum of water. This was in fact done; the instrument as originally designed was a white elephant, for about three distinct reasons, only one of which would have been spotted by an instrument technician.

One needs therefore to beware of translating the experience of the petroleum industry into process industries involving natural products(1). The type of innovation necessary in the small-industry instrumentation field bristles with problems at the practical level, which can only be solved by having trained people in the industry who know the practicalities of the process, know how to recognise a basic problem when they see one and also know to whom they can refer it, if it is outside their scope. The Crawford course looks as if it might supply this need.

September 30 1970

...At what point does the young graduate cross the threshold into independent creativity? My feeling is that it is somewhere around the MSc level for industrial work, while for academic work is seems to be related to the PhD. But if post-MSc experience is in industry, it is difficult for this creativity to go on record, except by direct reputation with those in direct contact; whence the need somehow to keep up access to the scientific world via publications.

I have some statistics relating to the last ten years' output from the UCC Honours Chemistry course (1960-69). They reflect Professor F L Scott's conviction that the MSc thesis, with a good general problem-solving philosophy, is a useful primer for industrial work in Ireland, while the PhD in an academic environment commits a student to a speciality and renders him or her less well adapted to industrial recruitment for applied work in Ireland. Professor Scott is critical of the attitude which regards the MSc as a 'failed PhD': he sees it as a good practically-orientated degree in its own right.

The statistics may be summarised as follows:

1. Of the 68 students who took an Honours degree without taking a further degree, 35 went into industry, 8 into government laboratories, 11 went into universities and colleges of technology and 14 became school-teachers. Of these 88% were in Ireland.

2. Of 51 students who did further degrees in Cork, the corresponding figures were 26, 6, 11, 8. Of these 92% were in Ireland.

3. Of 22 PhDs whose primary degree was from Cork, 10 are employed abroad, 7 have been abroad and have taken up jobs in Ireland (many of these in connection with the Regional Colleges of Technology(2) and 5 took up a job immediately in Ireland.

This appears to bear out Professor Scott's contention: if a significant fraction of these MScs had done PhDs, the net effect would be to swell the emigration figures, bringing brain-power to a few glamorous world-centres, leaving industry in Ireland short of talent.

Professor Scott's strategy has been to concentrate on understanding reaction mechanisms, rather than becoming a world authority on a particular class of compound. This approach, he claims, turns out graduates with good general problem-solving ability, having knowledge of a wide variety of techniques (including the use of the computer), rather than specialists who know the complexities of a particular substance or class of substances. Professor Scott has made Cork a centre for a series of international conferences on this reaction mechanism theme...... Industry in Ireland has been subsidising these conferences (basically the 7 or 8 firms who tend to absorb UCC graduates)...sufficiently to pay the fees and expenses of the key speakers. Thus every student has the chance in the course of his career to be exposed to one international conference event....involving world-figures. Numbers participating have been kept in the region of 500. The policy has been to 'pick the brains of the world', allow them to interact, educating the students in the cross-fire.

...The students, however, who by and large know that they are mostly destined to become routine technical staff in Irish subsidiaries of foreign firms, may fail to see the relevance. If a greater fraction of the R and D work of foreign companies were done in Ireland, the relevance would then become more obvious.

The Government could legislate for this by suitable framing the company tax laws; a strong science-graduate lobby (such as the Regional Scientific Councils) could press for this type of reform.

The UCC Chemistry Department includes a Radiochemical Laboratory..... giving training in handling radioactive materials. There is a research link with the Agricultural Institute at Oakpark, where they are searching for plant species having economically useful extracts which are adaptable to the Irish climate. This tradition of natural product chemistry goes back to Professor J O'Reilly's work on essential oils and peat waxes (1924-59).. Professor J P Teegan has a research student working with spectroscopic techniques on organic complexes of transition elements; Dr F Hegarty has been trying to establish models of enzyme systems. Dr D Burke, working on solid-state electrochemistry, constitutes a tentative bridge with the physicists and engineers.

The chairs of inorganic and physical chemistry have recently been filled by Professor Hathaway from Essex and Professor Cunningham from UCD, specialising in X-ray analysis and surface catalysts respectively.

There are postgraduate summer-schools for the older generation of industrial chemists, so that they can familiarise themselves with new techniques (eg vapour-phase chromatography, a technique nearly as good as the chemist's nose! It has the advantage however that it keeps a record of the intensity of the various components of the smell).

There is contact with NUU at Coleraine in the radiochemistry/natural product field, and close links, as might be expected, with the dairy and food science departments in UCC......

December 9 1970

I have been saying, with regard to fields that I know at first hand, that new products, devices, inventions etc are no longer of much interest; there are so many good, clever, useful devices about that one is bewildered by their power and variety. The problem, and consequently the area of prime interest, is how they can be integrated into systems that are socially useful.

Yet the knowhow and the expertise remains concentrated in the development of new hardware, to the extent that good, serviceable hardware is rendered prematurely obsolete.

If this situation obtains in the more recent technologies (aircraft, electronics etc), how much more so must it be in those older technologies which are chemistry-based?

I have the uneasy feeling that the economics of training chemists for a career in discovering new products must be well advanced into the 'diminishing returns' region.

I have had a number of disquieting hints from young chemistry graduates to the effect that they feel their training has been wasted and that they are misfits. I can't prove that this is representative of the situation; we need some sociological work among working scientists to check this out.

I get the impression that chemistry is still moving forward on the basis of the momentum acquired in World War I, when there was a traumatic expansion of chemical research in Britain in order to produce the explosives and dyestuffs that had been pioneered in Germany. In the inter-war period, because all these chemists existed, other work got done. Products were discovered, applications found and tonnage quantities sold. We are now discovering that some of these products, such as DDT, are practially indestructible and are building up dangerously in the ecological cycle.

Yet we still go on producing chemists, some of considerable ability, whose main aim is life is to add a new group to a heterocyclic compound in a new position..... If they succeed, here is another solution looking for a problem. The marketing people are often clever at inventing outlets, whether there is a need or not.

We have in Dublin two large Chemistry Departments of international standing. (I have already written about Cork, not because I wish to ignore Dublin, but because I feel that it is easier to begin with looking at the smaller centre.)

The two Dublin schools, under Wesley Cocker (TCD) and Eva Philbin (UCD) together cater for over 1000 students. They run joint seminars, alternating the venue week by week. They both have all the standard analytical equipment: gas/liquid chromatography, mass-spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance........

Both are engaged in classical structural chemistry; many research projects are in hand, some with National Science Council support. Yet I find it hard to know what to say. Is it because I lack detailed background knowledge and so do not grasp the significance of the research targets? Or am I, perhaps, in the position of the child who observed the emperor's nakedness?

If I were to take the latter position, I would say (as I have already said with regard to computers, and nuclear physics, and aircraft) let us stop this mad search for new products, let us organise to select the best and most useful of the ones we have got, and let us organise to bring down their cost of production, learning to use them to the best social advantage.

If we take this position, it follows that we should cut down on the production of chemists, physicists, biochemists and increase production of related specialists in the engineering fraternity.

While doing this, we could keep going enough training in the basics to ensure that science is kept going dynamically; we must never allow the need for more technology to force us to forget science. These needs may conflict, but we can compromise.

The UCD Chemical Engineering School has made a good start. Yet it seems to me to be in danger of being side-tracked. Last October they were presented with a desk-calculator by Erin Peat Products, in recognition of some basic research....into drying conditions in peat pot manufacture (a rather basic utility product for the horticultural market). This, while a welcome step in university-industry co-operation, is hardly mainstream chemical engineering. I would call it applied physics. Nor is Dr J J Kelly's work on blood-clotting on foreign surfaces.... this is fine interdisciplinary work, on the borders of physics, biochemistry and medical science. But again it is not chemical engineering(3).

There is a demand for chemical engineers; the jobs however are being filled to some extent by chemists, who have to forget their laboratory training and get retrained, or by foreigners......

It is one of the ploys of foreign ownership to keep the Irish graduates in the analytical labs, and to use the lack of chemical engineers as the excuse to bring in the 'foreign expert' in this field, which is increasingly being recognised as a key management area.

If someone can show me how research in structural chemistry can act as a training for a broader career, I will gladly write about it. I can see how research in nuclear physics can evolve into systems engineering and operations research or management-type activity. Does the analogous process happen with the chemists, or is the gap too wide? If so, something is wrong.

December 23 1970

.....Dairy technology is very close to chemical/process engineering with the added dimension of sterility. Much of the peripheral hardware (heat exchangers, pumps, evaporators, filters) depend essentially on physical laws. Conventionally they are referred to by chemical/process engineers as 'unit-processes'; when assembled into a plant working as an integrated whole, they provide a system whereby chemical or biochemical processes can be controlled so as to achieve a desired product.

My remarks about the UCD chemical engineering not being 'mainstream' are based on a feeling (or perhaps prejudice) that the investigation of the physical fundamentals of a unit-process in isolation does not constitute the primary concern of chemical engineering as a discipline.

If, on the other hand, one has a pilot-plant and is able to convert material on an appreciable scale (for which, of course, one needs an outlet), one is closer to the real situation where the decisive laws are those which govern the chemistry of what goes on in the reactor-vessel.

When I visited Professor O'Donnell's department, the work I saw included the study of the formation of liquid droplets, as well as the peat-drying work already referred to. This also is 'applied physics' in the process engineering context; I did not see any work in which the essential processes were chemical(4).

This emphasis is the result of the practicalities of running a university department.. For where can they go to gain access to pilot-plant conditions, such as to enable the laws governing the chemical conversion of appreciable quantities of material to be studied? There are fertiliser factories within reach, but these are standard plants without R and D potential....

The solution might be to make use of pilot-plant opportunities where these exist in the State applied rresearch institutes (eg at Glasnevin, or Moorepark, for dairy processing in the latter case), thereby building a bridge from a university towards an industrial environment. This would be easier to do than to build a bridge in one span the whole way to the industrial environment...

March 10 1971

I listened with interest to Mr M J Boyle, Development Manager of Nitrigin Eireann Teo(5), speaking to a meeting of the Irish Branch of the Institute of Chemical Engineers last Friday. Mr Boyle has developed some ideas towards a petro-chemicals complex, largely from the angle of a prospective foreign investor. Such a complex, taking crude oil as its main raw material, and producing naphtha, olefins and various other heavy chemical raw materials, as well as fuel oils etc, would 'spin off' other industries related to maintenance and production of plant, equipment and instrumentation. It would involve 100M pounds initial investment and would contribute possibly 50M per annum to the balance of trade.

However the thinking was all related to how to tailor a grant system to entice a multinational to come and do the job. This, coming from someone whose experience is based on a State-owned chemical process complex, is curious. He cites the existence of NET as evidence that chemical engineering complexes in Ireland are feasible. The mental block seems to be in the provision of capital.

It would be quite possible for the State to provide the capital necessary for an operation on this scale, and to employ qualified Irish chemical engineers to run it. Such capital is already invested in enterprises such as Aer Lingus, a highly skilled industry dealing with a sophisticated international market. The State is prepared to underwrite agricultural production to the tune of 90M pounds annually in subsidies of one kind or another.

Why the mental block against the 'do-it-yourself' solution? Is this relic of the 'slave-mind', the cap-touching deference to the foreigner, that has haunted us for so long?

The Resources Study Group in TCD(6) has produced evidence to show that large sums of capital for internal development would be available from our mineral resources, if certain bad laws enacted by previous Governments were to be revoked. One of their spokesmen pointed this out in the discussion which followed Mr Boyle's paper.

April 19 1972

I had occasion to visit the Glaxo factory near Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, recently. This is producing Complan, a complete food suitable for invalid diets. The basic ingredients are evaporated skim-milk powder, sugar, caseinate and vegetable oil.

A brave attempt was made by the Glaxo technologists to produce a continuous automatic blemding system, with all the ingredients under exact control. This ran into difficulties....due to the fact that these natural products are difficult to handle. Vendors of various types of continuous process equipment developed for the petroleum industry have sometimes tended to assume that the food industry is an easy target. All too often the 'caveat emptor' system does not work; one can have expensive failures.

On the continuous system as originally installed, if for any reason you had a stoppage, you were in real trouble, as the caseinate is like glue. Also there is a 20-minute lag in stopping the evaporator.....

Glaxo is now on a batch blending system which is working well and under control.

(For some amusing insights into continuous production processes, I can recommend the Jaques Tati film 'Mon Oncle').

There are 80 people employed, including 20 having technician or technologist status. The factory absorbs 1.5M gallons of skim in the peak month(7); this comes across the road in a pipe from the Lough Egish co-op, with which they have a contract. (This is an interesting bargaining situation, with a monopolistic supplier and a monopsonistic consumer.. A mutually beneficial deal appears to have been done...)

The effect on the economy of the region of these jobs, as well as the high incomes of the 2000-odd small intensive milk-producers, has to be seen to be believed, reflecting itself into the standard of food demanded in the type of back-room restaurant where local people eat....

July 12 1972

I have to hand a reprint from the British Journal of Chemical Engineering and Process Technology of a paper by J Kelleher, of Gouldings (Fertilisers) in Dublin. (This is a candidate for the NSC 'Irish Reprints Service', which doesn't yet exist, but perhaps will when the demand accumulates.) The paper is entitled 'A Productivity Criterion for Chemical Processing'; the author defines a coefficient which measures the ratio of actual to possible production while taking into account various levels of the latter. Low 'productivity' in Unit A might be due to a bottleneck in Unit B: should the manager of Unit A get any share of the blame?

This article is only scratching at the surface of a very basic problem in industry: how does one cost the various elements of an integrated whole so as to enable the correct management decisions to be made both in the short and in the long term?

Chemical Engineers have been in the forefront of technology as regards the use of control theory, on-line computers etc for getting the best performance out of each element of their plant, treated in isolation. I read J Kelleher's article as a challenge to the computer people to start thinking again, at a more integrated level.

December 6 1972

There is a.....development in the offing which will have a serious effect on the plans of Dr Arni(8) and the IIRS, modest as they are compared to the EEC Goliath. This is a regulation....which lays down that people employed in supervisory functions (eg production management or quality control) in the manufacture of medicinal products must possess a qualification in pharmacy in addition to any other professional qualifications.

This regulation is not yet EEC law. A good analogy would be to require that in a factory making musical instruments, the foremen must be practising instrumentalists.....

The Institute of Chemistry has come out strongly against this regulation as not only does it threaten the existing stock of chemists with obsolescence, but it renders the the build-up of a pharmaceutical industry along the lines suggested by Dr Arni conditional on an expanded supply of industrial chemists with qualifications in pharmacy.

In the absence of such a supply, the field is wide open for foreign firms to exploit with non-Irish managements. Is this what the European Federation of Chemical Industries had in mind when the lobbied Brussels to produce this regulation?....

February 7 1973

The process for the manufacture of cement has been known since the time of the ancient Romans. The raw materials (limestone, shale, gypsum) are readily available. Technological improvements in recent decades have centred round the control of the process and the improvement of efficiency of fuel utilisation.

The Platin works (near Drogheda, recently built on a 'green field' site) uses initially a single large rotary kiln, in which the crushed raw materials are converted to cement by contact with the hot gases from burning oil. The single Platin kiln can produce 400,000 tonnes of cement per annum, compared to the 520,000 produced by the 3 kilns at Drogheda and 760,000 by the 5 kilns at Limerick. When the Platin works is running with its planned 4 kilns, it will produce more than the combined output of the other two works.

This increase in productivity is based mainly on improvements in engineering and mechanical handling. The fuel economy (40% saving relative to the older plant) derives from the use of dry powdered raw material rather than slurry. This raises the question of possible health hazards for the process workers. Noise levels in the crushing plant are also a health hazard....

Analyses of the incoming raw material streams are done on an hourly basis and the results processed on a small computer, enabling the final specification to be matched accurately by a suitable combination of feedback control and blending.

The Cement people have been consistent users of the rail network, much to the advantage of the users of the overloaded road system. It is a pity that more people do not take advantage of bulking possibilities and the use of containers, thereby transferring a higher proportion of inter-city freight to rail. The gypsum comes down by rail from Kingscourt, for which purpose the Kingscourt line has been kept open.

The Platin works was built by a consortium of locally-based contractors, to a design of F L Schmidt of Copenhagen. Safeguards for the quality of the effluent (liquid and gaseous) have been built in.

January 30 1974

I have hesitated coming into the controversial area of the proposed Dublin oil refinery before this; basically I am 'environmentalist', while at the same time being in favour of upgrading the technological diversity of the Irish industrial base. These two objectives are not incompatible, provided the environmental legislation is adequate. (The Whiddy Island decision(9) makes this issue particularly relevant.)

I have now had a chance to see the IIRS report on the pollution levels which are considered in the planning application for a refinery on reclaimed land in the Pigeon House area, and on the effluent control practice which is envisaged.

The IIRS report states that '..the measures proposed by the applicants in regard to air and water pollution control represent the very best practice at this time....present pollution levels are not expected to show noticeable increase due to the proposed refinery; indeed SO2 levels maay fall'.

The total daily emission of SO2 from the 100m stack is not to exceed 20 tonnes per day, compared to an overall Dublin emission variously estimated at 250 to 500 tonnes.

The mechanism for the conjectured fall in overall SO2 levels implied in the IIRS statement is that the total SO2 in the city includes that generated by refined oils consumed. The proposed refinery apparently plans to work on 'light Arabian and West African crude with sulphur content below 2%'. This must be compared with the oil which the ESB is currently burning at Ringsend. I am not currently in a position to make this comparison, but I can see that by operating an appropriate buying policy, by controlling the sulphur extraction during refinement subject to stringent effluent regulations, and by doing a deal with the ESB to take up the residual oil to fire its Ringsend generator, the net situation could be improved, and this is what is in the plan.

Most of the opposition to the Dublin refinery appears to be based on a figure of 100 tonnes per day of SO2 suggested by Dr Donal Flood, who in his retirement from the IIRS is acting as scientific adviser to the environmentalists. I do not doubt that this figure is a correct measure of refinery practice under conditions where effluent control is weak or non-existent. What Dr Flood is suggesting is that the proposed levels of control would be flouted consistently, due to inadequacy of effluent control legislation. So may I suggest that the debate be brought around to the issue of urban effluent control, and that the refinery debate be examined again by the environmentalists with a critical eye? we need a refinery for the Irish home market? To answer this we need to go into the history of refining proposals in Ireland. The story goes back to 1939 when in the Fianna Fail 'self-sufficiency' epoch an effort was made by Sean Lemass to establish refinery capacity in Dublin, with the aid of London and Thames Oil Wharves ltd. This company (I don't know if it still exists) was an independent operator, outside the major multinational ring, which was prepared to do business with dangerous revolutionary countries like Mexico (which had just nationalised its oil) and Ireland (which had until recently been engaged in an 'economic war' with Britain, arising from the attempt by the de Valera Government to achieve some of the objectives of the 1921 Republicans which had not been conceded in the Treaty setting up the Irish Free State).

A refinery proposal was produced and discussed in the Press, but ultimately was blocked, apparently as a result of pressure by the major oil companies.

Then in the fifties, under political pressure, the Government was instrumental in setting up the Whitegate refinery near Cork, under the joint ownership of three of the major oil companies. The effect of this joint ownership was to block all internally-generated development proposals, as any such had to be approved not just by one but by three boards abroad. Chemical engineering staff was allowed to run down, those remaining becoming disgruntled; it is now, I understand, a routine operation run by technicians. Whitegate supplies 50% of the market of the Republic.

Why was a refinery not built at Dublin at that time? Contemporaneously one was built a Belfast: a natural place, near its main market, minimising short-haul transport-costs. On this argument the only possible site for a refinery is Dublin.. The Belfast refinery raised no environmental storm; nor, for that matter, did Whitegate.

To answer that question, consider the recent fuel crisis..... Anyone who travelled to Britain by car-ferry over Christmas, as I did, will have noted that in Britain there is no visible shortage of petrol. I covered 600 miles and never saw a queue or a closed garage. Clearly the Irish market, as far as the oil majors is concerned, is an appendage of the British distribution system, and they want to keep it that way. It is, apparently, policy to concentrate refining capacity in Britain and to block the development of independent refining capacity in Ireland. Dublin is supplied from Pembroke.

The current Dublin refinery proposal has major implications for the oil multinationals. As far as I can gather, it is a joint venture between Irish and French interests, the latter being the French State oil company.

A refinery in Dublin, on the currently economic scale of operations, would be too big to be content with the 50% of the home market left by Whitegate. It would have to seek markets in Britain, supplying them with refined fuel by small coastal tanker. This is the reason for the French interest.....

A refinery in Dublin, independent of the major multinationals, would enable the Government to do an independent deal directly with an oil-producing country.

Consider now the problem of siting the refinery anywhere else. During the building phase you would have to import labour on a temporary basis, up to 2500, which would then run down on completion leaving a staff of possibly 300 for operations, maintenance and development. To build in an isolated place away from major centres, as well as being inherently a costly operation, is to condemn the completed unit to the status of a routine operation with minimal further technological development potential. For this to occur, an imaginative technological staff of high calibre has to be close to and interacting with other technological and scientific services, such as are only to be found near a major urban centre(10).

...The only possible site for a refinery is a mojor port, and in the interests of minimising shorthaul costs it should be near its main market.

The task of the environmental lobby is, therefore, to press that the effluent, noise-levels and appearance are consistent with nationally-imposed standards. From what I have seen of the IIRS report, this should not be unduly difficult. Blanket opposition to a refinery on a declared and accepted industrial area at a major port is, I feel, overdoing the environmental watchdog role. So can the debate be re-started, with less heat and more light....?

On the question of oil spillage: to site the refinery in Dublin would involve a change in the method of handling of the oil volume consumed on the home market from a shorthaul, small-vessel system to a longhaul, large vessel system. This would substantiall reduce the number of fuel transfer operations, reducing spillage probability. Adding insome shorthaul operations to supply the surplus to the British market would bring the total number of handlings to something like the present level. This would of course need to be evaluated and watched... We are already facing this risk at Whiddy Island, without any significant economic benefit or compensation. We have the means at Whiddy of measuring the spillage risk, so that the Dublin debate can be quantified in this regard....(11).

May 15 1974

I have a letter from an irate chemical engineer castigating the politicians and civil servants for ineptitude, on two main counts:

(a) Failure to ensure that chemical engineers would be eligible for management in the pharmaceutical industry by resisting an EEC directive specifying a pharmacy degree as a requirement.

(b) Failure to ensure that the Nuclear Energy Board had on it at least one chemical engineer who would be equipped to evaluate safety measures in a situation involving large-scale transfers of heat and mass in a noxious environment.

There is some substance in my correspondent's points. I know, however, that the Chemists have been resisting the EEC directive, and I am not sure that it has not been done successfully. Additional organised opposition from the Chemical Engineers should certainly kill it. One of the consequences of EEC membership is that every organisation has to spend time and energy resisting bureaucratic interference.

I have already criticised the composition of the Nuclear Energy Board.. It will be interesting to see how it copes with the Wexford environmentalists when they become alive to the existence of a radiation hazard. I gather that the Rosslare Development Association are planning a public debate on the proposed Carnsore Point nuclear power station as an environmental hazard.

May 22 1974

The University College Dublin Chemical Engineering Department is introducing a new post-graduate course leading to a Diploma in Chemical Engineering. It is novel in that it enables a science graduate to convert towards engineer status, provided he or she possesses a suitable primary degree and some industrial experience.

The provision of this Diploma is in response to the existence of a high and increasing demand for chemical engineers. It is particularly likely to appeal to industrial chemists who feel that they have got into a specialist rut and that the road to management is barred to them.

It is not aimed a fresh graduates. It is hoped, presumably, that the slots left vacant by the experienced chemists taking time off to convert to chemical engineer status will be filled by young graduate chemists, who would thus find the road into industrial chemistry appreciably easier....

December 13 1974

For most people recycling of materials means waste paper collection. Readers will be familiar with reports of a recent dock-strike, when dockers refused to handle a particularly dirty consignment of waste paper originating in New York and destined for an Irish paper mill. This scandal has obviously awakened some public interest, and depots for the collection of waste paper are beginning to spring up, the proceeds to be used for charitable and other purposes.

The current issue of the Irish Engineers' Journal contains a long and well-researched article by Desmond F Moore, of the UCD Mechanical Engineering Department, with the title 'Recycling Industrial Wastes in Ireland'. This outlines the technology of waste recovery for glass, rubber, lubricating oils, plastics, metals etc.

One technology for recycling rubber is to freeze it to -200 degrees C, so that it becomes brittle and can be crushed into small particles; these can be used for surface finishes for playgrounds, industrial floors etc.

By pyrolysing scrap rubber you can get hydrocarbon gas and oil; the residual char is a smokeless fuel like coke, containing 86-90% carbon. The gas is nearly as good as natural gas; its best use is in the fuelling of the pyrolysis process, so that there need be no energy inputs.

Treatment of waste lubricating oils is a relatively simple process involving chemical removal of impurities, filtering and vacuum distillation.

Acid pickle-liquors from the steel industry can be combined with lime and fly-ash to form useful solid material.

Technologically there are no problems.....'it is only a question of economics'. Here we run into the core of the problem. It is useless for an engineer to preach to other engineers that certain desirable objectives are technologically possible. What is needed is entrepreneurial management which understands the technological options.

The problem is to find a workable system of collection and sorting of waste the case of tyres and lubricating oil this should not be too difficult. Small-scale dispersed operations would keep down transport costs. It requires a different mode of thinking from traditional chemical engineering, which tends to depend on bulk raw material supply. The type of 'scale economy' with which chemical engineers are familiar would, in waste recovery operations, tend to be nullified by transport and collection costs.

Desmond Moore's paper was read at the IEI Symposium in Galway last month....

Edward Fahy, of an Foras Forbartha, has an article on urban refuse, in which he makes a plea against the traditional land-fill procedure, calling for an appropriate administrative framework, vhich however he fails to spell out.

May 13 1975

I have referred to Dr Desmond F Moore's proposals for waste recycling....including lubricating oil, of which some 5 million gallons are thrown away annually in the Republic.

Waste oil can be made good as new by relatively simple treatment (filtering, cycloning, magnetic separation of metal particles, adding absorbent solids and refiltering etc). There are no technical problems. That it is economically sound on a scale of some hundreds of thousands of gallons annually is confirmed by the Midland Oil Refineries ltd (Worcestershire), suggesting that there is a basis for a decentralised 'laundry business' in Ireland....

One steel company, Patent Shaft Steelworks of Wednesbury, Staffs, re-refines about 10,000 gallons of oil used in the steel-making process every year, saving 35% of the cost. Oils designed to a tight specification can be regarded as good as new, provided they are kept separate and not blended off. This requires some not very onerous waste management.

Midland Oil Refineries specialise in batch re-refining of special oils, where the customer keeps his ownership of the material and takes the identical stuff back. It is re-refined to its original specification as a service to its owners.

It remains to be seen if there is enough special oil used in the Irish market to warrent this level of service. The relativelt small scale of the Midland operation relative to the total Irish wastage suggests that the market is worth close entrepreneurial attention, if it is not already being done. This is a case where it would be advantageous to look at the Northern Ireland market....proximity being the key to success....

June 3 1975

My apologies to the Atlas Waste Oil Company......for not knowing of their existence. But then neither did Dr Moore, whose 'Engineers Journal' article started me into looking at waste oil processes.

I have a letter from F M J Duffy, the managing director, who courteously complimented me on producing a fair approximation to the Atlas thought-processes of 1971.

Atlas is 75% Irish-owned and 25% English-Dutch. Average EEC oil recovery is about 23%. Atlas operates a scheduled collection system, has spent 25,000 pounds on promotion calling on some 20,000 oil users and now has 3000 clients. They are however short of their target, which they attribute to the objective difficulty of dealing with the large number of small users. Agriculture, fishing, vehicle fleet owners and public works contractors represent 40% of total new oil sales; these they find irrecoverable.

Despite these limitations, business is slowly growing and they are making money. Currently they operate a fleet of 5 bulk tankers.

They send batch loads to specialised launderers in Britain, as described on May 13. Mixed oils are processed into a fuel for industry.

Batch recycling of user-owned considered by Atlas to be unprofitable in general, though perhaps adequately profitable under favourable geographical conditions with high industrial concentration.

Atlas is developing towards a continuous process on the continental pattern, which they hope to have operational in three years time.

In Ireland there is perhaps scope for developing an agency network, with local depots for storage and perhaps some pre-processing.... substituting a flexible local collection system for a centralised tightly-scheduled one, the latter remaining in existence for the existing (major) clients and the nodes of the local-based collection systems....


1. See below also the reference to the Glaxo complan process (19/4/72).

2. This of course was a one-shot start-up recruitment, guaranteed to lead to frustration after a decade, as the cohort ages.

3. See Chapter 3.5 (Bio-engineering)(date) for more on this. See also Chapter 5.3 (Physics and Industry)(date) for further discussion of the physics-industry interface.

4. It could be argued that the label 'Chemical Engineer' is inappropriate; we are really talking about 'Process Engineers' whose job it is to provide a suitable large-scale process environment in which chemical reactions can take place, as specified by chemists.

5. The State-owned nitrogenous fertiliser factory. Some expansion along these lines subsequently took place, with State finance, but without adequately tight project management, so that it ran into financial trouble and the project has been mothballed.

6. See Chapter 4.1 (Non-renewable Resources) for more on this group of young radical technologists.

7. The milk seasonality question is explored in some depth in Chapter 4.5 (Food)(date).

8. See Chapter 4.3 (Environment) on the same date.

9. The reference is to the setting up of a storage-depot for Gulf Oil in Bantry Bay, a scenic spot in Kerry. No proper harbour authority was set up. A major fatal disaster took place there in 1979, involving the tanker Betelgeuse. There were a number of serious spillages over the period. The installation is now abandoned.

10. In the case of a Dublin refinery, there would have been strong creative interaction with the UCD Department of Chemical Engineering.

11. The Whitegate experience is perhaps more relevant: see Chapter 4.3 (Environment)(20/2/74). The Dublin Bay refinery article generated a lively correspondence. In the event, the environmental lobby won, and we remain without adequate refining capacity to deal with our national needs, a strategically unacceptable position. Environmental legislation remains weak; the 'environmental lobby' was shooting at the wrong target.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999